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Jessa's story

In the mid-1960s, Jessa was sexually abused by Lewis Siskel, the headmaster of her primary school in Sydney’s inner west.

‘I think from about 1st class till about maybe 4th class and then it seemed to stop …

‘He came out onto the playground every day to the bars, the monkey bar things … and he would come and put his hand up your dress and help you. Not only the girls, there were some boys on it as well, so he did the same thing up their trousers and things.

‘Everybody knew that, that was like raging gossip that he was putting hands up but nobody ever did anything about it.’

Siskel would also get Jessa alone, calling her into his office or an empty classroom. She remembered that he would masturbate while fondling her genitals.

In a statement to the Royal Commission Jessa wrote, ‘I don’t remember how many times this happened as I would go somewhere else in my head and just shut down ...

‘I knew it wasn’t right, but I didn’t know how to say it. I didn’t know what it was … I didn’t have the words.’

The impact on her mental health was immediate. ‘At one stage I think my mother thought I was autistic ‘cause I started to rock. I wasn’t doing well at school … they said I had behavioural problems. I had behavioural problems because somebody gave me behavioural problems …

‘I think I tried to tell my 4th class teacher … I think I tried to tell her but I couldn’t get her to understand … I think I just said things like “He sticks his hands between my legs”, maybe something like that but vaguely. I remember trying and it was just sort of shrugged off, as one of Jessa’s behavioural problems again, you know.’

When she was around eight, Jessa was taken to see a psychiatrist. ‘Because my mother caught me masturbating all the time, doing the same thing … she thought that was something … there was something not right with a child doing that.’

Jessa saw the psychiatrist for a few years, but never spoke about the sexual abuse. ‘I didn’t know what I was there for ... I was acting up because of this stuff but I couldn’t get it out what it was. So they were using toys and things to talk to me but I didn’t know what they were talking about.’

When she got to high school, Jessa said, she became a bully, ‘lashing out at anybody’. She also started self-harming. In her early teens she dropped out and ran away from home.

‘My mother tried to have me thrown into a psychiatric centre, because of my cutting myself and, you know, doing stupid things to myself … and I was truanting school, and she got the truant officer in. I think that’s what made me go. ‘Cause she wouldn’t listen to me, the truant officer wouldn’t listen to me, either … she called me a juvenile delinquent.’

Jessa lived in a refuge for several years before returning home and getting a job. She later had a career in the health sector, but the trauma of primary school never left her.

‘I’m not a good communicator … I was actually frozen for a long time. Like, I actually verbally couldn’t talk to people … It’s a strange feeling. It’s just like you lock up.

‘I’ve never been able to have a long-term relationship, because I just can’t communicate … it’s like I can’t be a partner, I have to be the control freak. Like, I can’t let anybody in, I have to control everything that goes on.’

There were also suicide attempts, substance use, and extreme anxiety and depression.

‘If I could write a book I would’ve called it … “If I Could Kill Myself Today and Come Back Tomorrow and Start It All Over Again” … That was when I was about seven, I had that title in my head.’

In the mid-2010s some former students started a social media site for the primary school. On it, Jessa saw references to Siskel. ‘And my head just opened, like cracking an egg open ... I just went berserk and told them what I thought of him. Somebody had said that he just passed away and hope he’d gone to heaven and I said well, I hope he’s gone to hell.’

Someone else on the site said that the school’s parents and citizens organisation were aware of the headmaster’s behaviour at the time.

Jessa said she ‘wouldn’t know how’ to take legal action against the education department and has never made a statement to police. However, after speaking with the Commissioner, she was going to talk to her doctor and start counselling.

‘It’s sort of opened a bit of a door to let me feel like it’s alright to do it.’

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